Upstarts in Radio's Land of the Bland


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

LOS ANGELES—Last week, the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to start licensing micro radio stations: small, low-power outlets that can be heard for a radius of four to seven miles. It's a limited plan—only a few new outlets will be awarded in most large urban areas, and only noncommercial stations will be licensed. But there's a good chance that the change will at least begin to make American radio more lively, interesting and diverse.

More stations, after all, mean more voices. There will be room for different styles of music, for different political perspectives, for stations less afraid to experiment. On a radio dial that seems blander every year, micro radio offers at least the potential for something new.

To the extent that this vision comes true, the credit should go to a much-maligned group: the pirates. These small illegal broadcasters, who go on the air without federal licenses, already constitute a lively micro radio movement. The F.C.C. is coming late to the game.

Twenty years ago, unlicensed radio was a hobby, something for tinkerers and egotists. By the late 1990's, it was a bustling movement, with hundreds of pirate stations around the country broadcasting everything from fundamentalism to funk. The F.C.C., facing a wave of civil disobedience, had a crisis of authority that it needed to address.

It's a little cheaper to build a radio transmitter today than it was in 1980, but what really made micro radio grow was not technology but federal policy. First the F.C.C. stopped issuing licenses for noncommercial stations with less than 100 watts of power. Then, under pressure from the broadcast industry, the commission reversed the policy it had tentatively embraced in the 1980's of allowing more stations to enter a city's market, instead making it easier for existing businesses to own more stations within a market. Little stations were out, and consolidation was in.

Small broadcasters began going on the air without licenses, not just to get more eclectic fare onto the air, but to force the F.C.C. to defend its policies in the courts of law and public opinion. What began as a collection of isolated stations soon grew into an organized, if decentralized, movement, with conferences, Internet lists and lobbying campaigns.

The F.C.C. has acknowledged no debt to the pirates; indeed, its new plan denies licenses to people known to have broadcast illicitly since last February, unless they immediately left the air when instructed to. But the very phrase "micro radio" was popularized by the pirates long before William Kennard, the commission's chairman, adopted it. And it is unlikely that anyone in Washington would have thought to let more people on the air by legalizing low-power radio had the pirate movement not emerged and made that its central demand.

There is more the F.C.C. could be doing to let the public onto the air waves. It could open more of the spectrum to broadcasting, moving beyond the standard AM and FM bands. It could let stations broadcast even closer to each other on the spectrum, moving beyond rules based on the technical standards of the 1950's. It could strip away the hefty fees and needless requirements for licenses.

There's one very simple measure of how effective the government's micro radio plan will be. How many people will continue to go on the air as pirates, risking fines and forfeiture of equipment, now that the commission has created this new class of licenses? If piracy is still flourishing this time next year, that will be a sign that the new plan did not go far enough.